It seems unlikely that Adrianne Lenker was put on this earth to do anything other than write and perform music. The effortlessness and raw talent woven into her band’s 2016 debut, Masterpiece, was breathtaking to watch; the then-24-year-old Lenker had spent the entirety of her life thus far working up to those songs and that moment.
Capacity, the swift follow-up, also no doubt contains ideas that Lenker has had on the back burner for years, but while it shares much with Masterpiece in terms of her carefully detailed excavation of the past and her band’s instrumentation, it has its own urgent stories to tell. “Folk rock” is a hot ticket and a crowded arena these days, but collectively, Lenker and company have carved out a niche that is uniquely their own, defined by the dualities inherent in life-altering moments and a kind of surrender to the beauty that’s found in chaos. “There’s a woman inside of me/ There’s one inside of you, too,” Lenker tells her listener on stark album opener “Pretty Things”. “And she don’t always do pretty things.” What member of the female gender won’t hear the truth in that?
Lenker’s vivid lyrics and vocals, which alternate between low and velvety and piercing when she sings in higher registers, are a major part of what define Big Thief’s sound, but equally essential are Buck Meek’s careful guitar work, which can be either gentle or more assertive, depending on what the situation calls for, and the heavy-handed rhythm section of Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia.
Every moment on Capacity holds its own weight, but “Shark Smile” is a quintessentially Big Thief track. It’s a double-edged sword that is alternatingly jaunty and dire, outlining a car wreck in which a woman survives and her lover, who was presumably driving, does not. The woman ultimately wishes that she had gone on to the other side, too. It switches from minor to major key and back again, flirting with the edge of all-out chaos before the band reigns it in.
Big Thief wouldn’t be what it is without the narratives that define Lenker’s life: she was born into a religious cult in Indianapolis, but her very young parents soon become disillusioned and left when Lenker was four. Her childhood was an itinerant, haphazard journey across the Midwest, stabilizing once the family purchased a house in the Minneapolis suburbs. Lenker, the oldest of three, felt an outsized sense of responsibility towards her parents and younger siblings, and the resentment toward feeling this weight on her shoulders drove her to write her first song at the age of eight.
One of the defining characteristics of Lenker’s songwriting on Capacity is the space she holds for other people’s perspectives, particularly those of other members of her family. “Mythological Beauty” chronicles a harrowing episode in her early life, when a railroad spike fell from a treehouse in her family’s Minnesota yard and hit her on the head, almost killing her. The character in the story that is drawn the most vividly, however, is Lenker’s mother. “I was just five and you were 27,” Lenker sings. “Praying, ‘Don’t let my baby die.’” It’s a song that evokes a film reel in your mind, playing on a loop even after the track has ended. In “Mary”, a slow-burning piano ballad named for one of Lenker’s closest friends, she weaves the piano notes like a security blanket, making gentle requests of a lover — “Will you love me like you loved me in the January rain?” — and reminiscing about times when she felt safe and cared for.
Lenker doesn’t always do pretty things — she can most certainly craft a beautiful song, but she’s canny enough to know that the ways in which we subtly alter our lives to be more aesthetically appealing often obscure a far more interesting truth. May she stick around to keep reminding us of it for a long, long time.
Essential Tracks: “Pretty Things”, “Shark Smile”, and “Mythological Beauty”